Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers

Academic journal article Parnassus : Poetry in Review

Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers

Article excerpt

Foils and Fakers, Monsters and Makers

Georgette Heyer. The Grand Sophy. Harlequin 2003 (reprint edition). 409 pp. $6.50 (paper)

Debra Weinstein. Apprentice to the Flower Poet Z. Random House 2004. 242pp. $23.95 $13.95 (paper)

Peter Ackroyd, Milton in America. Nan A. Talese / Doubleday 1996. 307 pp. $22.95

Christopher Peachment, The Green and the Gold: A Novel of Andrew Marvell: Spy, Politician, Poet. Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press 2004. 357 pp. $24.95

Louise Welsh. Tamburlaine Must Die. Canongate 2004. 152 pp. $18.95

A. S. Byatt. Possession: A Romance. Random House 1990, 555 pp. $22.95 $14.00 (paper)

René Steinke. Holy Skirts. William Morrow 2005. 360 pp. $24.95 $13.95 (paper)

In my twenties, newly married, eager to please my wife, I cozied up to her six best friends, the novels of Jane Austen. We didn't get along. Maybe Elizabeth Bennett's quip about "the efficacy of poetry in driving away love" hit a little too close to home. (Like Darcy, I preferred to consider poetry the food of love, especially on our honeymoon.) A hundred pages into Persuasion, I balked again, this time on behalf of poor Captain Benwick, "a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry," to whom Anne Elliot recommends "a larger allowance of prose." What was Austen's problem? Had I known that Charlotte Bronte once wondered, with Pride and Prejudice in mind, whether there could ever be "a great artist without poetry," no doubt I would have quoted her in defense of my slandered art. Lucky in my ignorance, I held my tongue, and have lived to find myself, like all good husbands, properly humbled.

In the last year I have become an aficionado of the poetry-bashing or poetry-praising novel, and still more of the novel-with-a-poetprotagonist. (Der Dichtersroman, I guess this last would be.) As you might expect, such books are a disparate lot. Some authors merely lift a verse, like a champagne flute, to toast a character's passion or aplomb:

"I like my afterglow with you in motion. I measure time by how your body sways." He bit her earlobe and she rolled to look up at him. "Okay," he said. "I just like my afterglow with you."

His eyes were dark as ever, but now they were hot, too, intent on her, and he took her breath away. Good grief, she thought. Look at him. He's beautiful.

"By how my body sways?" she said instead.

"It's from a very hot poem," he said. "It comes to mind whenever I watch you move."

Poetry, she thought. He'll be surprising me forever.

(Jennifer Crusie, Fast Women)

Others, like Austen, use poetry to limn their own genre. Persuasion, for example, hints that the novel can offer not only the pathos of Captain Benwick's beloved Scott and Byron and the sober moral precision that Anne Elliott prescribes in its place, but also a dose of forgiving, tender humor foreign to both.

When it comes to poets as characters, the diversity continues. If many novelists treat them lightly, as foils or poseurs, still more trade on the ancient glamour of the Poet as archetypal maker. They pour out their prose as an offering to raise that noble ghost and question it on topics that more sophisticated critics now avoid. (Sappho, Ovid, and the British Romantics get this nekuia-treatment most often, thanks to their mysterious and ever-compelling lives, but the same rite summons the confected Victorian poets of A. S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance.) Neither indulgent nor spellbound, a few novelists patrol the graveyard of verse like Buffy the Poetry Slayer, poised to unmask a monstrous ego or put a stake through the heart of an undying, undead reputation. "Milton!" they cry-and it is Milton, often enough-"Thou should'st not be living at this hour!" And the battle is on.

Foils and Fakers

For an introduction to the pleasures of the poet- or poetry-novel, however, you'll probably want to start with something less fraught than Paul West's Sporting with Amaryllis or Peter Ackroyd's Milton in America. …

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